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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 10, 2006

Close the loophole,
Protect the future

Native Americans who lived on this land before the European settlers arrived didn’t have the concept of land ownership that we do. Generations of schoolchildren have chuckled to think that settlers could have bought what is now Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets.

But the natives had the idea that the land belonged to the future, not that it was owned by the present. Land was cultivated or hunted on, then passed on to the next generation without being severely altered. Many Native American tribes also used their lands communally rather than having a sense of separate plots belonging to individual people.

Now that we’ve used up many of our natural resources and the land no longer stretches before us in an endless frontier, we might be wise to reconsider or temper some of our views.

One of them is the idea that a landowner can do whatever he or she wants with the land. A half-century ago, many American communities came to realize the importance of zoning and municipalities across the nation adopted their own codes.

Individuals gave up certain rights for the common good.

In the 1970’s the town of Knox adopted zoning and subdivision regulations.

We were a bit taken aback last month when Daniel Driscoll, who chaired the Knox Planning Board in the seventies when the subdivision regulations were adopted and was instrumental in drafting them, said of the one-cut rule, "That was the biggest mistake I made in my whole life."

The rule allows a property owner to take one cut every 18 months without going through planning-board review. Over time, this can lead to a mish-mash of or poorly configured lots.

The planning board has been pushing to close that loophole for 15 years, to no avail. It’s unpopular with residents who favor the freedom to do what they want with their land, so the town board hasn’t acted.

The subject came up last month in the context of a subdivision decision in which the planning board reversed itself. Years ago, the board had required a covenant on a piece of property restricting further subdivision, then lost track of the covenant. Once the covenant came to light, after a lawsuit was filed, the planning board rescinded its approval of further subdivision.

We looked back to a story we had written in 1992 where a developer subdividing that very same property in Knox had commented to the planning board if the loophole were closed, the covenant wouldn’t be needed. The planning board would be able to review each plan and see that their concerns were answered.

The concerns for this particular piece of property had to do with driveways being cut into a main road in a way that would be unsafe. If plans were reviewed and changes made because of that review, safety would be ensured.

In that same story, the planning board chairman lamented that it’ "a loophole big enough to drive a truck through," left by a town board that had not dealt with the planners’ unpopular proposal to have all subdivisions in Knox subject to review.

Review does not have to be onerous. Knox, as its comprehensive plan recommended in 1995, could adopt a streamlined, inexpensive review process for small subdivisions that would still allow worthwhile review.

Such review protects not just the community at large — from problems that range from unsafe roadways to misplaced septic tanks; It also protects the property owner.

"You don’t hear of this in other towns; it’s certainly a means of circumventing the planning process," said long-time Councilman Nicholas Viscio. "We need to deal with this before we have big problems."

We urge the town board to do what is best for its constituents and close the loophole before the truck that drives through it levels the future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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